Now that the 2009-2010 season is fully underway, it's time for Bolt Prospects to engage in the annual ritual of submitting its October Preliminary Rankings. This is going to be a fascinating season for the Lightning's prospects, as Norfolk looks like it has the most depth its had since the Lightning affiliated itself with the Admirals franchise and a deep 2009 NHL Entry Draft has given Lightning fans much to look forward to in the junior ranks. But, before we proceed, lets go over the ground rules again.
Bolt Prospects considers a prospect skater to be any player under the age of 24 on opening night of the season who has played less than 41 NHL games in any given season and who has not played more than 82 career NHL games. For goaltenders, any player who has less than 30 NHL decisions in a single season and less than 41 career NHL decisions is still considered a prospect. The exception to these rules is an NCAA player, who is considered a prospect for however long they remain in school. Clear as mud? Wonderful. Let's begin...
1.) D Victor Hedman , Tampa Bay (NHL)
Lightning co-owner Len Barrie once called Vincent Lecavalier  a "generational player," the kind of special talent you build your entire team around for 10-15 seasons. We feel Victor Hedman has already shown he is going to be a generational player. For an 18 year old rookie to hop out of the womb, so to speak, and play 26 minutes a night and contribute offensively is practically an impossibility in this day and age of professional hockey. Kings first round pick Drew Doughty was given serious Calder Trophy consideration last year even though he was playing less minutes and only managed a 27 point season. By that criteria, one would think Hedman should be considered a real and present Calder threat. The fact he's 6'6" 220 lbs and freakishly mobile, especially after he gets up to speed after his first stride or two, is actually an afterthought given his amazing instincts, vision, and unflappable decision making. He's already, going on the minutes the coaching staff has been giving him, the best defenseman on the Lightning roster. The NHL should be shivering in fear from what Hedman will be two or three seasons down the road.
2.) RW Steve Downie , Tampa Bay (NHL)
Downie has spent the early part of this season shuffling between a scoring line with Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay  and a checking line with Zenon Konopka  and Todd Fedoruk , and to his credit he's played reasonably well in both roles. He's got good speed, is surprisingly strong on the puck, has good playmaking instincts, and loves to take the body. The pluses are obvious. What remains for Downie is twofold: first, he has to stay off of suspension, and second, we'd like to see him get a little more selfish, especially when he gets opportunities on a scoring line. He's also got a great shot and his speed offers him the chance to take the puck wide and drive the net, but he seems to have fallen back into a pass-first mentality that it seemed was drummed out of him last season in Norfolk.
3.) RW Carter Ashton , Lethbridge (WHL)
Ashton exceeded all expectations by seriously challenging for a scoring line roster spot straight out of training camp this season. Ashton plays a no-nonsense pro style game and is very strong and well conditioned for such a young player. He's got no fear of going into high traffic areas to score goals and he's not afraid of getting his nose dirty along the wall. We expect him to score 40 goals in junior this season and he should be considered an odds-on favorite to make the Lightning next season.
4.) RW Richard Panik , Windsor (OHL)
Panik had an outstanding camp with Tampa Bay after missing rookie camp earlier in the summer with injuries. He's strong on the puck and a dynamic puckhandler and playmaker, and he's already begun to answer critics of his work ethic and conditioning with his play in Windsor. At this time last year he was considered a potential lottery pick, and many teams may be kicking themselves for passing on Panik three or four years down the line, as he's consistently drawn comparisons to Marian Hossa. Like Ashton, it would be unsurprising if Panik made the Lightning next season.
5.) D Matt Lashoff , Norfolk (AHL)
Lashoff fell victim to the Lightning's newly acquired blueline depth and his inability to prove to management that he had worked on his weaknesses during training camp. The Lightning gambled and won feeding Lashoff through waivers to get him to Norfolk. Hopefully, Lashoff will use the 25 minutes of ice time he's likely to receive nightly to work on his play in his own zone and prove to the coaches that he's willing to compete physically along the wall and in and around his net. There's no question about his beathtaking skating ability or his ability to move the puck. In fact, we expect Lashoff to eventually rack up dozens of power play assists feeding his feathery soft saucer passes to a trigger man like Blair Jones  on the Norfolk power play. But he needs to recognize that he's probably in a long competition with fellow Norfolk blueliner Mike Lundin , with the prize being a spot in Tampa Bay next season if and when the Lightning decide they don't have the ability to re-sign Paul Ranger .
6.) D Ty Wishart , Norfolk (AHL)
Wishart's beginning to become a bit of a disappointment for the Lightning organization, which acquired him as a part of the Dan Boyle trade. He left training camp with a whimper, and seems to have fallen a bit out of the discussion on the Lightning blueline given the new found depth they have and the fact other young blueliners seem to have moved ahead of him in line. He, like Quick, also received a bit of a gut punch when Lundin and Lashoff made it through waivers, because that likely will starve Wishart of power play time he might have otherwise gotten with the Admirals that would have been critical to developing the offensive side of his game. It's going to take Wishart stepping up his aggression, both offensively and physically, to re-establish himself as an option to make the Lightning next season.
7.) G Dustin Tokarski , Norfolk (AHL)
So far so good. Tokarski's living up to his legend so far. It took all of five minutes for Tick to establish himself as co-starter in Norfolk, and he's already managed to rack up his first professional shutout in just his second professional game. If the rest of the NHL will be kicking themselves for not drafting Panik two or three years down the road, they might be downright suicidal if and when Tokarski meets his full potential as a bluechip, big game NHL starter.
8.) RW Dana Tyrell , Norfolk (AHL)
Remember when the Lightning used to lack prospect depth on the wings? Tyrell has bounced back nicely from a knee injury that cost him half his final junior season and has shown no ill effects to his world class skating ability. Tyrell isn't just quick, he's sudden. His blow-by speed is going to be a great asset to the Admirals once he shakes off the post-injury rust and within two or three years Lightning fans should expect to see Tyrell adding zip and energy to the Lightning lineup whether on a checking line or on a scoring line.
9.) LW Johan Harju , Dynamo Moscow (RUS)
I'd be interested to know, if you could get Johan Harju in the cone of silence in the room of truth, if he thinks the $900,000 or so he got, tax free, from Dynamo Moscow was worth it. Harju's struggled in his first season in the Russian KHL after having established himself as a dominant player the past two seasons in the Swedish Elitserien and on an international stage with good performances for Sweden in both Euro Tour events and the World Championships. Lightning GM Brian Lawton has said the Lightning intend to sign Harju next summer, and we doubt Harju's struggles to adapt to the Russian league will dampen enthusiasm for the big power forward. He's still a big time sniper prospect who draws comparisons to Detroit's Johan Franzen, and the upside of his Russian experience is that he may come to North America next season with a whole new perspective on just how precious it is for him to have an NHL opportunity.
10.) RW/C James Wright , Tampa Bay (NHL)
The beauty of an NHL training camp where every prospect is allowed to participate is that anyone has a shot to climb the ladder and win an NHL job. Case in point: James Wright. Wright has routinely hung around the 20 spot in our rankings. He was never really able to put his game fully together after being selected in the first round of the WHL Bantam Draft prior to an outstanding camp and string of exhibition games where he earned an NHL contract and a spot on the Lightning's third line. He does everything well, but nothing really well. He's a good skater, he's good positionally, good on faceoffs, etc., etc. He'll never be a big point scorer, but he seems like a lower line type who will be able to help generate a forecheck and do the dirty work for more talented linemates. Our expectation is that Wright will be sent back to junior after a handful more of NHL games, because he's simply too skinny to compete for a full season at the NHL level. If you look at him sternly, you can put him down on the ice he's so skinny. But, we expect him to be back once he puts on some more muscle and fleshes out his game, and if he does goes back to Vancouver of the WHL we wouldn't be surprised to see him put together a strong 30-35 goal campaign for the Giants.
11.) G Riku Helenius , Norfolk (AHL)
We feel bad for Riku Helenius, who has become the forgotten netminder in the Lightning organization. The former first round pick is now co-starter for the Admirals with the highly touted Tokarski. It's not that he lost the starting job, though. In fact, to this point, Helenius has done just about everything you'd have expected of him. But, were an injury to strike in Tampa Bay, would Tokarski or Helenius get the call? That's a situation that's likely to occur over the course of this season, and it will speak volumes as to what Helenius' true spot is in the organization.
12.) C Alex Killorn , Harvard (ECACHL)
It's getting harder to call Killorn the stealth prospect. His performance at Lightning rookie camp was superlative, and we suspect if Killorn follows it up with a strong season at Harvard the Lightning are likely to beat a path to Boston with a contract in hand. Killorn's just a great package of speed, skill, instincts, and leadership intangibles. We expect him to take more of a leadership position with Harvard this year, even though he's just a sophomore, and we wouldn't be surprised to see him be the catalyst that helps resurrect the Crimson's program after a disappointing 2008-2009 campaign.
13.) C Paul Szczechura , Norfolk (AHL)
Paul Szczechura choked. He had an excellent opportunity to make the big club out of camp and establish himself as an NHLer, and he instead was surprisingly lackluster and ineffective in scrimmages and exhibition games. He blew it, but the good news for Paul and the rest of the forwards in Norfolk is that their opportunity may still come, and soon. If the Lightning send Wright back to junior and move one of their nine NHL rostered defensemen, that could open up two forward spots in Tampa Bay. For that reason, every forward in Norfolk - including Szczechura - should be very hungry to prove their the best of the bunch and deserving of a second chance at the big time.
14.) LW Alex Hutchings , Barrie (OHL)
All Hutchings has done is lead Barrie in scoring each of the last two seasons and he's likely to do it again this year. He still needs to get bigger and stronger if he's going to take the next step to the pro level, but there's no doubt he's got the speed, the skill, and the drive to be a very good player. He's not on the fast track to the NHL like Ashton or Panik, so we expect him to become one of the centerpieces to the Norfolk franchise for the next two or three seasons before he gets his crack at the big time.
15.) RW Martins Karsums , Norfolk (AHL)
Like Szczechura, Karsums choked away a gift wrapped opportunity for a roster spot in Tampa Bay. However, Karsums surprised many by choosing to accept a demotion to Norfolk and bide his time waiting for a recall. That decision may have saved his NHL career, because although Karsums is waiver eligible, we still see him as one of the forwards who may be in the running if and when a couple of forward jobs open up in Tampa Bay. Karsums was ineffective down the stretch in Tampa Bay last season, but he had a good World Championships and has played pretty well in Norfolk's opening games. His decision making and play in the defensive third need to get better if he's going to stick in the big leagues, though.
16.) C Mitch Fadden , Norfolk (AHL)
Fadden's getting an education right now in just how different the pro game is from junior hockey. After dominating the WHL offensively for three straight seasons, Fadden has landed on a checking line this year in Norfolk where it will be important for Fadden to commit to playing honest hockey defensively and physically if he wants to make his way to the big time. Fadden's got world class speed and offensive hockey sense, but he's never been known as a complete player. It'll be up to Darren Rumble and the rest of the Norfolk coaching staff to routinely kick Fadden in the butt to insure he's doing the things he needs to do to shake that reputation.
17.) D Vladimir Mihalik , Norfolk (AHL)
I'll freely admit we're probably underrating Mihalik, a former first round pick, by slotting him in at 17, but after two disappointing pro seasons the burden of proof is on the big Slovakian blueliner. Mihalik committed himself to an offseason conditioning program for the first time in his career and has said that it was an eye opening experience to realize just how out of condition he had been in previous years. That has helped Mihalik earn power play time in the early season for Norfolk, and has helped him get off to a much better start with the club. Mihalik's size and reach mean if he just plays good positional hockey, he's going to be difficult to beat defensively, and now that he's not carrying around extra weight, he's got the wind to jump into the play a little more and use his big shot with the man advantage. Mihalik's athletic talents have always been obvious, and we're hoping his new commitment will help him overcome the fact that he's about a year behind schedule in our eyes.
18.) LW Radek Smolenak , Norfolk (AHL)
Welcome back, Radek. Smolenak enjoyed a brief overseas stint with the Chicago Blackhawks, who plucked the power forward off waivers for their season opening tour through Europe. The Lightning then got Smolenak back quickly after Chicago waived Radek upon returning to North America. So, Smolenak got some NHL game checks from Chicago and the Lightning got a prospect on the cusp of being an NHLer back with no harm or foul. A good time was had by all. We still love Smolenak's physical courage and his razor sharp quick release. He should benefit from being able to ride shotgun again with Szczechura in Norfolk and like all the Admirals forwards, he's in the running to make it back to Tampa Bay.
19.) C/RW Blair Jones, Norfolk (AHL)
Jones got serious consideration for the third line right wing job in Tampa Bay in the preseason and we suspect he's near the top of the list to make it back to the NHL if and when James Wright gets sent back to junior. Put simply, we think Jones is a prototypical checking line player for Rick Tocchet's system. He's got good size and strength and when he wants to be he's downright tenacious on the forecheck. He's also developed quite a shot in his three-plus pro seasons, and helps anchor the Norfolk power play from the point. Considering the Lightning don't have a righty point shot on their power play other than the ultra-fragile Kurtis Foster , maybe that could make Jones an even more attractive commodity to the club? The Lightning have never seen Jones as a power play point man at the NHL level, but in the absence of other options, maybe he deserves a chance?
20.) D Kevin Quick , Norfolk (AHL)
It was a rough camp for Kevin Quick, who was among the first cuts by the team due in no small part to the fact Darren Rumble basically accused him of an offseason training program that consisted of lifting heavy boxes of donuts. The extra weight may have cost Quick, whose game is premised on speed, a half a step worth of acceleration and it may take half a season for him to get it back. The news got even worse for Quick when Mike Lundin and Matt Lashoff made it through waivers, thereby shrinking the amount of vital power play time available to the second year pro. So, Quick's in a tough spot, and it'll take a lot of hard work for him to get back into position to get back to the NHL.
21.)G Jaroslav Janus , Norfolk (AHL)
When you have two goaltenders at the NHL level who spent large swaths of last season on injured reserve like the Lightning did, you'd be wise to load up on goaltenders. For that reason, the Lightning selected the athletic overage Slovakian netminder in this year's draft and have kept him in Norfolk on an amateur tryout contract. The team doesn't have an ECHL affiliate this season, so it'll be interesting to see what they do with Janus, but he's already earned a reputation in the scouting community for his competitiveness and his Gumby/Hasek-esque quickness and flexibility.
22.) LW Juraj Simek , Norfolk (AHL)
Simek forms two thirds of the Admirals' new speed line with Dana Tyrell, and has become one of Darren Rumble's favorite players because of his skating ability and his balanced, all-around game. We're still dubious of his NHL upside, but he's an important cog in Norfolk.
23.) D Mark Barberio , Moncton (QMJHL)
Barberio's off to a mediocre start in Moncton in a contract season where we had hoped he'd be a competitor for the title of best defenseman in the league. Uh oh. He was dispatched from Lightning camp fairly quickly, and although the lack of defenseman prospects in the organization would logically put him in a good position to earn one next season, there are no guarantees. He needs to step it up.
24.) RW Matt Marshall , Vermont (HEAST)
Speedy Matt Marshall continues to hang around the bottom of our top-25 list. He's got blazing skating ability and loves to rattle the boards on the forecheck. We expect him to have a larger role with Vermont in his sophomore season and help a Catamounts program that's on the rise make another run for the Frozen Four.
25.) G Michael Zador , Oshawa (OHL)
We're putting Zador in the 25th and final spot in our rankings on faith. The former first round OHL Priority Draft pick has struggled a bit early this season and lost his starting job for about a week and a half. He's a good positional goaltender, though, and we expect him to win that job back.